Tony & Pepper – A Long Time Coming

Pepper Potts found herself once again at the annual Firefighters Family Benefit at the Disney Concert Hall on a warm September night in Malibu. Instead of the backless blue dress she had so foolishly chosen to wear last year, Pepper opted for a cream colored floor length Chanel dress. Pepper felt safer in this dress because she knew it would attract less unwanted attention then her previous years dress. Little did she know that across the room at the bar Tony Stark was staring at her with his smoldering deep brown eyes that could set the entire room on fire.

"Tony…Tony. TONY!!" Rhodey was standing next to his best friend at the bar and was trying to hand him the scotch he ordered.

"Hmm" Tony responded without daring to move his eyes away from his breathtaking PA who was standing across the crowded room.

"Your drink," Rhodey responded and instead of waiting for Tony to comprehend his words he just shoved the drink into his hands.

"Thanks Platypus," Tony muttered before downing the drink in a single gulp. For what he was about to attempt he needed all the liquid courage he could muster up.

"What's wrong with you tonight," James questioned. "I've never seen you this quiet at a public event."

"Pepper," was all that Tony managed to articulate to him. And by nodding his head towards her direction Rhodey could see what it was that held Tony captivated. Rhodey had always felt a brotherly love towards Pepper, but tonight she looked simply stunning.

"Wow," Rhodey agreed.

Across the room Pepper was friendly chatting away with some of her old friends in the Accounting Department of Stark Industries. She felt that it was good to keep such a distance away from Tony. The ESP she had developed after working with him for over 10 years told her that he was at the bar and after last year at this very Benefit, she didn't need a repeat performance between them.

"Hottie at 12 o'clock," Allison, Pepper's closest friends at Stark Industries said with a breathless whisper. Before Pepper could ask who her friend meant, a hand tapped Pepper's shoulder and instantly Pepper turned to meet this person. Upon seeing the blue eyes that were unmistakable to Pepper she gasped at surprise and so clumsily faltered backwards. The curious stranger caught Pepper around the waist before she could fall and smirked at her before saying, "I didn't think I could have ever gotten this response out of you, Ginny Potts."

"Brandon," Pepper whispered back. The gentlemen smiled in response and helped her back up to her feet.

"Pepper, you know him," Allison said immediately while her eyes took in the two of them and failed to not notice how one Brandon's arms was still around Pepper's slim waist.

"General Brandon Harter. US Air Force." He extended his hand to Allison.

"We went to high school together," Pepper replied to her friend. Pepper turned her eyes upward to the handsome figure beside her who was clad in Air Force attire and was immediately aware of the arm that was still around her waist.

"Pepper was the only girl that broke my heart," Brandon said grimly. "She was the one who got away."

Pepper blushed furiously at his half hearted confession and before she could reply she heard a glass shatter loudly somewhere across the room. Ignoring the sudden clatter she looked up at him with questioning eyes.

"You're in the Air Force?" Pepper asked. "I mean I knew that you wanted to be a pilot in high school, but I thought you meant commercially."

"I did," Brandon replied. "But after my father passed away I need to find a better way to pay for college and the Air Force seemed like the best option for me."

"I'm sorry about your father," Pepper replied. Brandon smiled at her and then looked toward the dance floor where numerous couples were spinning around to a waltz.

"Will you dance with me Virginia?" Brandon asked looking Pepper straight in the eyes.

"Yes," Pepper relied and with that Brandon grabbed her hand and led her to the dance floor.

At the bar Tony was enraged and was making this very apparent to all who surrounded him. The remains of his scotch glass were being cleaned up by the bartender who looked very frightened by the fuming billionaire.

"Who the fuck is he?" Tony growled to Rhodey. The "he" in question was now gliding around the dance floor with Pepper, HIS Pepper.

"That's General Brandon Harter," the bartender answered to Stark. "He just came back from a three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. I heard he's taking command of Edward's Air Force Base now."

"How do you know all that?" Rhodey questioned the bartender.

"I hear a lot of stuff," the bartender simply replied.

"Thanks" Tony muttered stuffing a hundred dollar bill in the bartender's tip cup before moving towards the dance floor.

"Tony wait," Rhodey called. "Don't do anything that you regret, like punching him. Think about Pepper."

Pepper and Brandon were effortless gliding around the floor with such a synchronization that would put professional dancers to shame.

"I can't believe you're in Malibu, though," Pepper said with a smile. Brandon looked down at her and replied with a warm smile, "Well you know I love the sun and surf, anyway it was a choice between here or running the school in Denver and when I heard you were out here I knew I couldn't refuse the chance to see you again."

"I'm not so sure I can believe that," Pepper said with a questioning look. "You broke my heart if I recall correctly."

Brandon suddenly looked crestfallen. "I was seventeen Gin and a jerk. I thought I could have everything without there being any consequences."

"Don't you mean everyone," Pepper replied with a touch of acid. "Or do you not recall me catching you with Jessica Cavanaugh at prom after we were together for what…a year I think."

Brandon faced suddenly darkened with shame. "And that was the one mistake I wish I could have taken back."

"I'm sure," Pepper replied with heavy sarcasm.

"I'm serious Ginny," Brandon said pulling her closer, "I want you back."

Before Pepper could reply to Brandon she turned her head to see her boss, Tony Stark approaching them quickly. Pepper smiled at him and was glad that he chose this moment to come over. Pepper pulled away from Brandon when Tony was within arms reach and she could see the testosterone standoff begin. Pepper felt that introductions were unavoidable at this point but before she could open her mouth to speak Tony beat her to it.

"Anthony Stark. CEO of Stark Industries," Tony said calmly but with a hint of threat in his voice to make sure this guy understood how important he was and Tony extended his arm to him in the hopes of crushing his opponents with it.

"General Brandon Harter. US Air Force." Brandon replied coolly with a hint of arrogance. And his hand went out to meet Tony's in a show of no fear. The shake between them seemed like each of them was trying to prove their worth to Pepper. Pepper stood quite still in the middle of this standoff and was unsure of what to do now. At the same moment both men turned to her and spoke at the same time while extending their hands to her in an invitation to dance, "Shall we?" They then turned to glare at each other before turning to look at Pepper to see who she would choose. And this choice was not just about a dance.

"Sorry gentlemen, but Pepper promised me a dance," came the sudden voice of Rhodey. Pepper turned around to see the Colonel standing behind her with a arm extended.

"James, I though you would never ask," Pepper said with a sigh of relief and was whisked away from her boss and ex lover and back to the dance floor.

"Pepper," Rhodey began as they turned in their slow waltz and threw Pepper a look of pure empathy.

"James, please don't" Pepper pleaded. "I never though I would have to deal with being the shiny toy that two children both want to play with."

"Tony knows you're not a toy, Pepper," James said with a sure voice before glancing over her shoulder to see Tony and Brandon having a heated exchange.

"Then why does he treat me like one?" Pepper shot back.

"His feelings for you are entirely pure in intention, well as pure as they can be for Tony," James said with a faint smile.

"Right," Pepper said with heavy sarcasm. "He just can't bear the though of living his life without me by his side. And by that I mean cleaning up after his messes and taking care of his one night stands."

"You know he doesn't do that anymore, Pepper. He's changed. Haven't you noticed?" James asked.

"I have, but how long will that keep up. Some people never change. They just fall out of their patterns for a time, but they are back to who they always were just as soon as they have the chance," Pepper ranted.

"Love changes a man," James said quietly.

"Love? Tony Stark doesn't know what love is," Pepper snapped back.

"He loves you Pepper. It's just taken him getting held captive to make him realize that," Rhodey said looking Pepper straight in the eyes.

"I'm scared of being hurt by him," Pepper admitted with tears in her eyes.

"Tell him how you feel. He's scared too," Rhodey said before wiping away Pepper's tears.

Watching Pepper and Rhodey twirl around the hall together made Tony surge with jealousy. But he was glad that it was Rhodey who was like a brother to Pepper and not the jackass he was currently squaring off with. Tearing his eyes away from the dancing couple and turning back to the man on his right Tony looked him dead in the eyes as he sized him up as competition. The General was around the same height as Tony, but Tony's shoes gave him at least an inch or two over him. In terms of physicality, they were very similar but Tony had definitely more toned muscles. The General had a face that a mother would love while Tony's was one that a father would kill if it looked anywhere near his daughter. The General was clean shaven which gave him a younger appearance which made Tony look older but more refined with his signature goatee.

"So exactly how old are you kid," Tony asked with a mocking tone.

"32," Brandon answered confidently. "What about you grandpa?"

"35," Tony answered without a hint of shame.

"So how do you know Pepper?" Tony asked.

"We dated in high school. I took her virginity," Brandon said with a smirk.

"Charming," Tony answered through clenched teeth while his fists tightened.

"I see that struck a nerve. Well I'll warn you know, I came back here to win *Virginia's* heart, not Pepper's," Brandon said while confidently sipping on his newly acquired glass of Champaign. "And if you know what's good for you you'll stay out of my way because I always get what I want and she is no exception," Brandon said as he mentioned to Pepper with his glass.

"You're warning me? Do you know who you are talking to kid?" Tony said with a bark of laughter. "You're too late. Pepper's been in love with me for years," Tony said with a veil of confidence.

"We're about to find out then," Brandon said and he nodded over to Pepper and Rhodey who were crossing the dance floor to rejoin them. "The one she picks to dance with is obviously the one she wants to be with."

Holding onto Rhodey's arm with a slight grip Pepper saw suddenly faced with a choice as she approached the two men. She looked into both of their eyes and realized what she was looking at: the past and the present. But who was to be the future? Pepper realizes that this was neither the time nor the place for such a choice so she made the one decision that would ensure that neither of them would get the next dance. Pepper had never been a person who used dramatic gestures and behavior to get what she wanted, but right now she made an exception. Pulling an Elizabeth Swan, Pepper faltered in front of her two suitors and decided that who was there when she opened her eyes was the one she would be going home with.

When Pepper opened her eyes she saw an industrial ceiling. Groggily she slowly sat up in her bed only to realize that she was in a hospital bed and she had a massive head ache. Looking around and realizing that she was alone in the room she called out, "Hello?"

"Hello Ms. Potts," came an unfamiliar voice. "My name is Doctor Fitzgerald. How are you feeling?"

"My head is killing me," Pepper replied.

"Yes, well a slight concussion will do that to you."

"Concussion?" Pepper repeated. "What happened?"

"According to the gentlemen who brought you in you apparently passed out at a charity benefit and neither gentlemen were quick enough to catch you."

'Well that's what you get for trying a dramatic gesture.' Pepper though to herself.

"You said 'the gentlemen' who brought me in," are they still here?" Pepper questioned.

"Well no," the doctor began. "The gentlemen who carried you in was followed by two other gentlemen who were bickering over who should be the one to carry you in and that they started a fist fight so security had to be called and both had to be escorted off of the premises. As to the severity of you concussion there is no need to worry. Your tests and scans all show normal brain function. I would just like to keep you hear overnight for observation, but after that I suggest that you stay with a friend for a few days to make sure there are no further complications."

'That must have been Tony and Brandon.' Pepper though with a small smile. 'They are two of the biggest idiots.'

"The gentlemen who carried you in, a Colonel Rhodes is waiting outside. Would you like to seem him?"

"Yes. Please," Pepper said happily. The doctor briefly left the room and was back within a few minutes with a tired looking Rhodes behind him.

"Oh Pepper," Rhodey said with a sigh. He approached her bed and gave her a quick kiss on the forehead.

"I'm sorry," Pepper said with a small voice. "I thought I could decide who I wanted to dance with but I froze and decided swooning was the best option," Pepper said sheepishly. "I just figured someone would catch me."

"Well Tony is an absolute wreck by the way," Rhodey said with a sympathetic look. "I've never seen anyone react with such fury and panic. He was ordering the entire hospital around before he got kicked out and believe me he was a force to be reckoned with," Rhodey said with a grim smile.

"I want to be with him Rhodey, but the fear that he'll turn into the "old" Tony and reject me the next morning won't leave me. When I saw Brandon I just thought being with him would be easier, but he cheated on me before. It was like I had to choose between the lesser of two evils, and I just couldn't so hence the dramatic fainting," Pepper raved with sudden tears in her eyes. "I'm just sick of being hurt all the time, I just want to feel loved."

"Well you're in luck then," said a familiar voice from the doorway. "Because I love you."

Pepper's head turned towards the doorway to see Tony standing there with a bouquet of red tulips. He crossed to her bed side before quickly kicking Rhodey out of the room and sitting in his now vacant seat next to Pepper's bed. Once they were alone together, Pepper spoke breaking the silence.

"You came back," she said happily.

"Of course I did."

"I didn't think you would."

"Hospital security can't stop Iron Man," Tony said with a smirk.

"But they kicked you off the property."

"I bribed them with an obscene amount of money and they let me back in."

"Tony."

"Pepper."

"Don't ever do this to me again."

"What?"

"Scare me like this."

"Sorry."

"I forgive you."

"After they kicked me out I got these for you," Tony said gesturing towards the flowers. "Do you know what the meaning of red tulips are?"

"No."

"They mean eternal love," Tony said quietly. "Pepper I love you."

"Tony, I…," Pepper began, but before she could continue everything went black.

The next morning Pepper woke up in dizzying haze. Last night seemed like a dream. Seeing Tony in her room and to hear him confessing his love to her was what she had been waiting for years to hear, but never thought would be possible, but when she looked over to the chair next to her bed it was occupied by a sleeping Tony. Pepper smiled as her heart swelled in her chest. 'He stayed. He never stays the night with anyone' Pepper though. Pepper quietly rose from her bed and moved to the side of the chair. Upon gazing down lovingly at her dreaming boss Pepper placed a small kiss on his forehead.

Tony had been so scared when Pepper blacked out that night that he raced to her doctor. Upon being reassured by him and several neurologists that Pepper was just exhausted and this was her brains way of recharging itself Tony settled back into the loveseat next to Pepper's bed determined to be there when she would wake up. When he felt a sudden pressure on his forehead he opened his eyes to see Pepper placing a chaste kiss on his forehead.

"Good morning sleeping beauty."

Pepper lightly blushed, "You stayed."

"I wouldn't be anywhere else," Tony lovingly and the truth of it shone in his deep chocolate eyes.

"Do I get to go home today?" Pepper inquired hopefully. She would need a few days at home to deal with these new emotions before she could go back to work.

"I'll go find your doctor," Tony said before rising and quickly before crossing the room but stopping at the doorway where he turned back to face Pepper. A smile graced his face as he thought to himself 'I'll never leave her side again." After a few more tests by her doctors and another x-ray Pepper was cleared to leave the hospital. As she exited the hospital with Tony at her side she spotted Happy waiting for them at the entrance of the hospital with the door of the limo open and waiting. As both Tony and Pepper climbed in the back Tony told Happy to take them home.

"Home?" Pepper asked.

"Yes, Pepper home. You're coming to my home. And hopefully soon you will call it *our* home," Tony said with loving affection filling every word.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," Pepper said before snuggling up next to Tony in the back of the limo.

"I love you Tony Stark, with all of heart."

"I love you too Pepper Potts, more then you will ever know."

"Tony…what happened to Brandon?"

"I take the fifth."